Rapp school programs make VSBA ‘showcase’ list

The Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) recently released its 18th annual VSBA Showcases for Success directory, highlighting successful K-12 programs in Virginia’s public schools, including two from Rappahannock: Books & Barks and the service learning class.

From school safety and community outreach, to classroom programs and after-school clubs, a wide range of programs were included in this year’s showcase, which focused on the VSBA motto, “Leadership, Advocacy, Support.”

Included in the 119 programs on this year’s directory are two from Rappahannock County Public Schools: The elementary school’s Books & Barks program, and the high school’s Service Learning program, a new addition to this year’s curriculum. Also represented among the 62 school divisions are several of Rappahannock’s neighbors, including Fauquier and Shenandoah counties.

Books & Barks, which is now is its ninth year at Rappahannock County Elementary School, allows students to focus on honing their reading skills and study for their weekly reading tests in a more relaxing way, said RCES Title I instructional assistant Michele Herbert.

“They love it; I have students who were in the program and are now in eighth or ninth grade who still have their photos with the dogs,” said Herbert.

 “The Books & Barks Reading program has provided an wonderful outlet for struggling readers as well as beginning readers to become hooked on reading,” said superintendent Donna Matthews. “It offers the students an opportunity to share their stories with a ‘Waggin’ Tail’ partner and to develop that confidence and love for reading that is so very important during those fundamental and developmental stages of reading.”

For 90 minutes every Friday morning, groups of students sit on a blanket with the dogs and their book of the week (which they’ve already spent time covering in class) and read to the canine companions and their owners for approximately 15-20 minutes.

There are usually at least four volunteers and dogs each week, allowing the kids to form reading groups of two to four. The students then read in a round-robin manner — each students reads a full page before passing it along — and answer context questions asked by the human volunteers.

Sally Petty, who founded the Waggin’ Hearts facility in Sperryville in 2002, started the Books & Barks program in 2003. She got her start with a therapy dog program in Vermont before moving to Virginia, and wanted to continue it after relocating to Rappahannock County.

Petty said the program has quickly expanded since its inception, and now has around 50 volunteers visiting schools in Madison County, Front Royal, Ruckersville and Marshall.

For more information on Waggin’ Hearts, Books & Barks and how to become a volunteer, visit wagginhearts-therapydogs.org or contact Petty at 540-987-9632.

The other spotlight in this year’s showcase focused on the high school’s service learning class, which is now in its second semester. Former Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Aldridge Boone had the initial idea for the program, which mandates potential RCHS graduates accumulate a certain amount of community service hours as part of their graduation requirements. Before his resignation in February, 2012, Boone handed the program’s reins over to Gall, who has taught earth science, environmental science and horticulture for the past 30 years.

“I was thrilled that Mrs. Matthews wanted this program spotlighted in its pilot year,” said Gall. “I am happy for the attention the program receives as we are hoping to continue to expand opportunities for students and community organizations to partner together. It’s a win-win program.”

“The Service Learning course . . . has offered students a new look at community service,” said Matthews. “The program requires countless hours of preparation time and logistic planning for the instructor, so dedication is a precursor to the success of this program. This dedication would flounder if it were not for the widespread community support from so many generous volunteers that share their skills and talents with our students. This new swing on volunteerism has enriched our students and promoted an even greater sense of community pride and respect.”

The idea behind the program, Gall said, is to take students and match them with a volunteer site somewhere in the county. However, the class isn’t just community service: “There is a learning component which separates it from regular community service,” Gall said.

Monday is an in-class day, Gall said, with students working from a college-level textbook, writing journal entries and preparing their year-end research projects. The journal entries, Gall said last year, will be used to make a presentation at the end of the semester, providing a measure of progress as well as something to add to a resume or portfolio.

The next three days see the seven students sent off to their various work sites, which this semester includes the Rappahannock Food Pantry, Rappahannock County Elementary School and the Child Care and Learning Center.

Friday again sees the students reunited under one roof, though this time it’s at the elementary school and the Old Washington School to help package and distribute the food backpacks for the county’s highly successful backpack program.

“In addition to highlighting some of the best practices taking place in Virginia’s schools, the directory can serve as a starting point to develop similar programs in other school divisions,” said VSBA executive director Gina G. Patterson.

“Both programs promote individual growth, confidence and respect for others,” said Matthews when asked why she chose to spotlight them. “These are qualities that every teacher, parent and administrator strive to encourage in our youth. We are appreciative of our community support and our students efforts . . . and are very proud that VSBA chose to showcase RCPS and recognize these two worthwhile programs.”

The full directory is available on the VSBA website.